There are many beliefs about well-being that get perpetuated over and over. They might show up in articles or on social media sites. They might be deeply ingrained into our society. And they totally miss the mark.
This month clinicians reveal the real facts behind misconceptions that suggest everything from the importance of staying strong to striving for happiness. Plus, they share what works instead.
1. Myth: Showing your emotions is weak.
Fact: “In the U.S., there is a bias towards being strong, independent and fierce,” said Melanie A. Greenberg, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in Marin County, Calif., who specializes in managing stress, mood and relationships. It’s embedded into our roots: “The pioneers had to be tough to survive the harsh conditions or to set out for new lands.” Grandparents had to be tough to endure the Great Depression, she said.
Today, boys are typically socialized to brush off their feelings and not cry, especially in public. This leads many people to believe that they should be strong enough to get over anything.
“This is the most dangerous myth as it stops people from reaching out and asking for help when they need it,” Greenberg said. Instead, people often bury their emotional pain by turning to addictive substances or engaging in other unhealthy behaviors, she said. Ignoring our problems only exacerbates them, which leads to anxiety and depression.
Plus, seeking support takes strength. As therapist and Psych Central blogger Aaron Karmin, LCPC, said in this interview:
Seeking counseling is a sign of strength, not weakness. We all need help from time to time and it’s a sign of strength and intelligence to know when to seek support. Someone who has skills and the right tools is an asset, not a liability. If I have a leaky faucet and the only tool I have is a hammer, just banging on my pipes is only going to make the problem worse. The pipes burst, my basement floods and the foundation cracks. Or I could just call the plumber and he gives me a new tool called a wrench, so next time I have a leak I can fix it myself. Counseling offers new tools and professional instruction. If I have a bad tooth, I go to the dentist; if my car breaks down, I go to the mechanic. We get professional support for all kinds of problems and mental health is no different.
2. Myth: Success breeds happiness.
Fact: “From a young age, we’re taught to make sacrifices and work hard, because later we’ll be able to enjoy the fruits of our labor,” said Vince Favilla, a psychology professor and founder and lead writer for Sooniwill.be. We learn that we’ll be happy after we get accepted to an Ivy League university, finish grad school or land a prestigious job, he said.
However, some research suggests that only 10 percent of our happiness is determined by life circumstances, Favilla said. The rest is determined by genetics and intentional activities (what we do and how we think). The joy we feel after getting a promotion is short-lived, he said.
“After you achieve it, your brain moves the goalposts and sets a new, ambitious goal.” Instead, Favilla suggested creating a life we can enjoy right now — “not at some unspecified time in the future.”
3. Myth: It’s important to feel happy all the time.
Fact: “While deriving happiness from our friends, families, careers and hobbies is a lovely aspect of life, it is not the only emotion we should experience,” said Casey Radle, LPC, a therapist who specializes in anxiety, depression and self-esteem at Eddins Counseling Group in Houston, Texas.
Unfortunately, many of us put pressure on ourselves to be in a constant state of bliss, because this is what we see regularly. Social media sites, for instance, promote the notion that happiness should be our life’s goal, and of utmost importance, she said.
Naturally, when we don’t meet this unrealistic expectation, we end up feeling guilty, she said. We also might feel “inadequate [when we] aren’t gleefully skipping through life with a smile on [our] faces and a lightness in [our] souls.”
However, the reality is that sometimes life is overwhelming, Radle said. “It’s important to trust that you can handle negative feelings in a mature and healthy manner.”
Plus, negative feelings are informative. That’s why it’s important to get curious about them. Radle shared this example: You get really irritated that your partner is habitually late. You realize that this makes you feel like you don’t matter, which is painful, because your partner matters to you very much.
“By staying curious about your feelings and digging deeper, you [might] gain valuable understanding, which can lead to productive, mutually beneficial conversations.” This prevents you from pushing your feelings down and becoming resentful, she said.
In another example, you delve deeper into why you’re feeling scared and unsafe. You realize that your anxiety is actually exaggerated. So you take this opportunity to explore what’s making you feel this way and take steps to reduce your anxiety, Radle said.
However, if it feels like negative feelings are consuming you, consider seeking professional help, Radle said. “Just like we don’t need to be happy 100 percent of the time, we don’t need to be sad or numb 100 percent of the time either.”